Do leaders make the church or do the people?
The story goes that a small group of radical, white, male leaders created social Christianity, supported by the middle classes. Heath Carter’s account of Chicago, labor and the churches offers a different tale.
In Union Made (Oxford), Carter
tells about dozens of ordinary working folk, black and white, men and women, who played an essential role (along with much less heralded clergy). They were central in bringing Scripture to bear on the inequalities of the day.
Consistently they made it clear they were not rejecting Christianity or the church. Instead they were rejecting the form of Christianity and the church that was beholden to capitalist elites. They not only voiced their beliefs in speeches and newspapers but voted with their feet–walking away from churches that failed to support labor and joining those that did, where they could find them.
That’s not how it always was. As Chicago exploded in the 1830s and 40s, rich and poor mingled regularly in the first, humble churches quickly thrown up in the booming city. But as more extravagant buildings were erected by the wealthy who began to pay well-known ministers far more than ordinary laborers, and as high pew rents literally relegated those of lesser means to the margins, the rich and poor divided.
Ministers were reluctant to criticize the business practices of their patrons which kept other church members in poverty. They helped perpetuate the myth that honest, hard work was all that was needed to raise anyone up, ignoring the playing field slanted in favor of the rich and powerful.
For forty years churches worried about unchurched working people all the while failing to support their concerns. The shift came in the late 19th century when labor movements were able to distinguish themselves from radicals and anarchists which Catholic and Protestant churches had long condemned. This middle ground gave churches the opportunity embrace labor concerns more and more. And they took it.
Carter’s epilogue quickly summarizes the next hundred years from 1910 to the present. The efforts of church and labor and government made the 1960s “not only the most affluent but also the most economically egalitarian period in modern American history” (181).
Since then, however, working class Christianity has shifted to thinking like capitalist elites–“that prosperity came not through gritty organizing efforts but through individual access to divine power. Having flourished first at the grassroots, social Christianity withered there too” (182). Likewise since then, the gap between the ultrarich and the rest has widened to proportions not seen since the days of the nineteenth-century robber barons.
As a result of Carter (disclosure: the author lived with us for several months) researching rarely viewed archives, we have a vivid picture of what ordinary people said and did during the rise of “union made” social Christianity in Chicago. We also see how the people shape the church as much as its leaders.